DES MOINES — While many Iowans still were sleeping off the late-night surprises of the November 2016 election, former state legislator and abortion rights opponent Chuck Hurley was prowling the cavernous halls of the Iowa Capitol like an emissary on a calculated mission.
The 2017 legislative session, said Hurley, “begins today.”
Thus was launched an 18-month quest — for some a religious crusade — to enact tougher, maybe the toughest, restrictions on abortions now that Iowa Republicans had broken the Democratic grip on the Iowa Senate and taken full control of the Statehouse and governorship.
Included in the GOP night of upsets on Nov. 8, 2016, was the defeat of Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat who was the bane of the Terry Branstad-Kim Reynolds gubernatorial administration and main roadblock for many GOP initiatives in the split-control Legislature.
With Gronstal out of the way, abortion rights opponents saw a two-year opening to reshape the political landscape starting with Senate File 2, a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, and additional measures to impose a three-day waiting period and define “personhood” as life beginning at conception — effectively banning abortions in Iowa.
Another development that Iowa Family Leader head Bob Vander Plaats called “huge” was a decision by advocacy groups with a history of factionalism to set aside their difference and unite as the Coalition of Pro-life Leaders.
“I think it was significant if not precipitous,” said Hurley, a Family Leader attorney who was among a group of lobbyists who formed a daily cadre of voices for protection of the unborn in the Capitol rotunda, committee rooms and private consultations with key legislators. “I think some life legislation would have passed, but nothing this strong.”
The desire among Iowa’s religious and social conservatives to do more “has been penned up for decades, so the dam busted in November 2016 for Iowa,” said Hurley. The success in ”moving the ball down the field” but not yet reaching the goal of a total ban on abortion was accomplished through coordination, determination and a late surge of 67,000 emails from “prayer warriors” that “turned the tide” in the House, added Vander Plaats, Family Leader president and chief executive officer.
Erin Davison-Rippey of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, who was on the losing end of most legislative battles the past two sessions, said the tactics to enlist legislative support went far beyond that to gain final support for the “fetal heartbeat” bill — legislation to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, often as early as the sixth week of pregnancy and before many women know they’re pregnant.
“We understand there were many House Republicans who did not support this bill. They were strong-armed, they were threatened, they were told that they could not leave the building until they voted for this bill,” said Rippey.
Beginning in January 2017, the Statehouse became a hot bed of partisan demonstrations for both sides of the abortion issue as changes were proposed to Iowa laws that had operated for years under an uneasy compromise.
“I think after the election we knew that reproductive rights and sexual health would be under attack and we’re seeing that manifested in legislation that is harmful to women, dangerous to our state and infringes on our rights,” said Rippey.
The 2017 session ended with then-Gov. Branstad signing a bill that bans most abortions after 20 weeks and requires a three-day waiting period for abortions — a provision being challenged in the Iowa Supreme Court by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
GOP lawmakers also blocked public money for family planning services to abortion providers, but many left the Statehouse disappointed and vowing to make another run at tougher abortion restrictions in 2018.
Heading into the final year of the 87th General Assembly, abortion rights opponents made it clear they expected GOP legislators to deliver on campaign promises to approve a “personhood” bill that would be a vehicle to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, or face election-year consequences from groups who supported and funded their campaigns.
The breakthrough for them came early in the 2018 session, said Danny Carroll, a former legislative leader and ex-Iowa GOP chairman who lobbies for the Family Leader, when Republican senators said they had the votes to pass the “fetal heartbeat” bill.
The bill won Senate approval 30-20 in February but stalled in the House, where legislators opposed to abortion rights were split over whether the tougher restrictions would pass constitutional muster.
“I’ve been fighting for life at conception and last year we had to settle for a 20-week bill,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. “But you keep making progress when and where you can, and here we are with a heartbeat bill.”
The final compromise on the heartbeat bill (Senate File 359) was reached when a band of GOP senators threatened to shut down the budget process by withholding their support until the heartbeat bill was passed. House Republicans negotiated three exceptions for rape, incest and fetal abnormality that enabled supporters to secure the 51 votes needed to get the bill to Gov. Reynolds.
The bill does not specify criminal or civil penalties for those breaking the law. Earlier versions had called for felony charges against doctors.
Critics argued the bill was poorly written with vague language creating uncertainty for doctors making medical decisions — and rather was only a vehicle for getting the abortion issue before the Supreme Court.
Officials with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Iowa chapter of the ACLU say they will file a court challenge to the new law, which takes effect July 1.
Both sides of the issue say the judicial process could take two to three years, cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars and ultimately depend on shifting tides of public opinion and the judicial makeup.
“I think what we’ve seen is that some folks have been emboldened by the Trump-Pence administration and seem to think that they can trample on the rights of Iowans and Americans,” said Suzanna de Baca, president and chief executive for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. “What they’re going to find out is that Iowans and Americans will not stand for it.”
Reynolds signed SF 359 into law, saying she is “100 percent pro-life” and that as governor she would “do everything I could to protect the life of the unborn.” She would not, though, directly answer when asked if she supported the effort to legislate that life begins at conception.
“Our gold standard is life at conception, so we’re moving that way. We are not done yet. This is not a time to celebrate and say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ This is a time to double down,” said Vander Plaats. “We’re winning hearts and minds in the cultural transformation. I think what this shows is a sign of revival and where Iowa can lead the way in the country.”
Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference said some people were surprised the fetal heartbeat bill was approved in Iowa “but Iowa’s politics are always a little different. Iowa kind of bounces back and forth between different ideas and so this will definitely put Iowa on the map in terms of the pro-life movement, no doubt about that no matter how this is resolved.”
He said there is some trepidation how the issue may play out in court, which prompted Iowa’s four Catholic bishops to issue a joint call for the judiciary to recognize “that all life should be protected from the moment of conception to natural death.”
Hurley agreed the response from outside Iowa was one of “major surprise.” But he predicted it would have “a ripple effect” in red states he predicts will “do something similar or stronger.”
“I really think as more states speak about the sanctity of life, that ultimately is going to have an effect in Washington.”